BLACK boxes are easy to retrieve when an aircraft crashes on land, but are hard to find in the sea. When TWA 800 broke apart over the Atlantic near Long Island in 1996, it took seven days to find. When Air France Flight 447 crashed in the Atlantic in 2009, it took two years.

The unsuccessful efforts to recover the flight recorder of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH730 were enormously costly as is the search for the Air Asia Flight QZ8501 black box, involving nine planes plus ships from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the US, and two Japanese ships with three helicopters en route to the area.

These searches highlight the penny wise and pound foolishpolicyof using outdated technology in vital data storage devices. Given the huge difficulties and costs, why does the airline industry refuse to use more advanced devices?

The black box (actually orange) comprises a flight data recorder and a cockpit voice recorder. If submerged, the recorders send signals (pings) while their battery lasts (usually 30 days). The technology used hasn’t changed much since it was developed in the 1950s. Here are the possible alternatives.

Ejectable black boxes: As long ago as 1949 a patent was granted for a marker buoy that included the automatic release of a surface float and a dye to discolour the surface of the water. Last July, Airbus was assigned a US patent for an aircraft black box that includes a crash detection device that is ejected outside the aircraft through a duct positioned so that it will not impact the aircraft.

Ejectable recorders that float when ejected over water have been manufactured in the US since the 60s by DRS Technologies and are already installed on some military aircraft. US congressman David Price proposed legislation in 2007 that would have required ejectable recorders on commercial airliners and reintroduced the bill last March, but no progress has so far been made.

Cockpit video (privacy v safety): In 2000 the US National Transportation Safety Board recommended that commercial and charter planes be equipped with video recorders that could provide information such as whether smoke filled the cockpit before an accident, a violent passenger broke in or the pilot became ill. Although such equipment is available from US manufacturers, the recommendation has not been implemented. Pilots and their unions have fiercely fought the project as an invasion of privacy.

A video recorder in the cockpit of EgyptAir Flight 990, which crashed in the sea after take-off from New York in 1999, would have been invaluable to investigators who concluded the pilot crashed on purpose, a finding the Egyptian government disputed.

Satellite transmission: The idea of transmitting black box data by satellite is not new. The technology is used on planes that provide WiFi for passengers. Data could be stored outside the aircraft, with a facility for real-time review in an emergency, triggered by the pilot or from the ground if the plane disappears as did MH370.

In 2009, after the Air France disaster, Der Spiegel reported that Robert Francis, former vice-chairman of the US National Transportation Safety Board, said in future he wanted all important flight data transmitted via satellite. Upgrades to aircraft would not be required — just reprogramming of the software in the communication system. Experts in Germany’s Federal Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Investigation in Braunschweig and the European Aviation Safety Agency in Cologne consider it “technically feasible” to report flight data on every flight to a central office via an online system. But pilots object. “It would be tantamount to the full-scale monitoring of pilots,” says Jorg Handwerg of Cockpit, a German pilots’ association. To protect privacy, Francis says radio communications could be encoded.

More than a decade ago, Krishna Kavi of the University of North Texas’s college of engineering outlined what he calls “glass box” technology to live-stream flight information to anywhere in the world, permitting real-time analysis of flight data such as altitude and cruising speed from which ground-based computers can detect abnormal changes such as a sudden drop in altitude or speed. Kavi discussed the creation of prototype satellite systems with the US Federal Aviation Administration and airlines but was told they would be too expensive.

Yes, transmission of flight data does take up expensive satellite bandwidth. According to Bloomberg’s Businessweek, a 2002 study by L-3 Aviation Recorders and a satellite provider found that a US airline flying a global network would need to spend $US300 million per year to transmit all its flight data, even assuming a 50 per cent reduction in future satellite transmission costs. But experts have argued that a flow of data if the aircraft entered an unusual situation would be sufficient. Kavi offered to explore alternatives to minimise the cost, such as triggering data streaming only in an emergency, and says a cost-benefit analysis of the advantages cannot be performed unless such alternatives are explored.

It is difficult to understand the lethargic approach to modernising this vital aspect of airline safety considering that transmitting the data via satellite could detect mechanical failures, pilot errors, pilot illness and terrorist attacks.

The essential need is to strike the right balance between safety concerns and economic demands. The enormous financial and emotional costs of the search for flights MH370 and QZ8501 underline the urgent need to improve our outdated safety systems.

First published in THE AUSTRALIAN on January 5, 2015

COMMENTS (That appeared in THE AUSTRALIAN)

Cheryl1 HOUR AGO

The Blackbox pingers should be set up on a (for example) five or ten percent duty cycle not a fifty percent as now for a simple power saving, allowing many more days ping times. This would be trivial in cost to implement.   A shorter ping burst could easily allow significant peak amplitude increases allowing longer detection ranges without significant circuit modifications.   These techniques have been obvious for decades.

When the malaysian airliner disappeared in the Indian Ocean,  our sub fleet should have been sent immediately to search with their listening devices while submerged which should have been much more effective than surface detectors especially in rough water, or the eventual deployment of the single deep towed more optimal supposedly detector .  Of course the subs would have to have been  able to be put into service before the search was over, and be functional…We can but dream

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Graham2 HOURS AGO

Just knowing where every plane is at anytime must be the starting point. This would require minimal transmission of the GPS signal that the plane receives: latitude, longitude and altitude. I would suggest a frequency of once per minute for flights above about 10,000 feet (on the basis that unless there is a mid-air collision or catastrophic explosion a radius of about 5 miles should be sufficient) and about every 10 seconds for flights below 10,000 feet. The latter would only kick in during take off, landing and crashing for commercial airliners. To avoid clutter where the plane is in normal take off and landing mode and therefore under direction of and visible to air traffic controllers it could be automatically switched off during these phases.

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alex5 HOURS AGO

I would imagine the lack of comment is due to summer time mindsets or people just giving the News the flick while on holidays.  In regard to the original column it always amazes me how everyone takes their own self-centred position forgetting about the  consumer, the poor bunny who pays the fare which pays the pilots, airline and original manufacturer.  Now a marketing savvy airline could install these devices then promote itself as being able to detect problems in flight via communications back to base and render solutions before the problems become intractable in the air.

Qantas used to use a facility, called ACARS if I recall correctly. I would imagine they still do. It transmitted digitally airflight information back to base via INMARSAT the geostationary satellite network. So to some degree this is already happening with Qantas.

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John8 HOURS AGO

The silence (in terms of comments) says it all. Obviously, neither consumers nor the airlines don’t consider this issue to be of a high priority.

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Patrick7 HOURS AGO

@John  Most consumers, like me, probably feel that they are out of their depth commenting here except to agree with “underline the urgent need to improve our outdated safety systems”

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Ken6 HOURS AGO

@Patrick @John With no expertise in this area but being a big fan of Aircrash Investigations TV series, my gut reaction to a mysterious disappearance of a commercial airplane like MH370 is that the whole system is so damned primitive given what I can do online, given programs such as Flight Radar, etc,..  Most of the earth’s surface is water yet the “black box” batteries die out after 30 days? That’s just inane in my inexpert view!

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